With the viewing of this film earlier this week I can now say definitively that at some point in my life I have seen every film on the TIFF essential 100 list. This might seem a little silly for those who do not regularly read my blog posts, but this has been an endeavor that was well over two years in the making. Many of the films on the list were quite easy to come by, but since it is an incredibly diverse and decidedly globalized list some of the works were just near impossible to find, particularly Memories of Underdevelopment, which as you may know is a Cuban film about revolution set in the heart of the sixties. Fortunately, my attending a rather big name school for graduate studies has afforded me the chance to watch a copy, all be it, on a VHS player, but it is by no means the worst venue for some of the films I had to dig up, I think specifically of Wavelength and Pather Panchali when reflecting on this quest. It is quite appropriate that I ended with something like Memories of Underdevelopment, because it stands apart from so many on the list (all quite excellent films in their own rights) as something uniquely its own. A hardened cinephile will quickly recognize the various cinematic traditions exploding on the screen, whether it be flares of cinema verite, or a heavy use of Fellini's humorous absurdism, in fact, one can even pick out a healthy dose of American rock'n'roll influence, despite being a film made in Cuba during the height of its revolution. What makes Memories of Underdevelopment such a powerful film, however, is that despite its clearly personal commentary on the state of Cuba politically and its inevitable extension to those occupying the spaces of the multiracial, multi-classed island, the film somehow manages to exude a certain degree of awareness about the larger questions of humanity, personal struggle and the ever present concern of aging and existential angst. Filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea blows the lid off of cinematic conventions, by layering cinematic tricks, with masterful metaphors never allowing the narratives decidedly non-linear structure to ever provide any degree of comfort or intimacy to the viewer, yet the message is so personal and impassioned that it is hard not to be fully gripped from the violent opening of the film to its introspective closing moments.
Memories of Underdevelopment has a few narratives interwoven within the particular experiences of Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) a well-to-do Cuban whose travels and living in Paris have clouded his judgement of Cuba both as a country and as global political identity. Sergio purposefully uses the term underdeveloped to refer the the nature of Cuba as it moves towards the seventies, suggesting it to be indicative of its relationship with countries like the United States, as well as a reflection of the larger social landscape. Of course, Sergio is quite well off, therefore, he is able to more easily move about Cuban streets and, subsequently, engage with people of various classes. Yet, as a single bachelor, Sergio spends a considerable portion of his time attempting to hook up and manages to find success with an young girl named Elena (Daisy Granados) whose doe-eyed demeanor is both built up as a point of attraction for Sergio, as well as a sign of weakness which he is happy to exploit. Of course, his involvement with Elena is far more fleeting and desires nothing more than casual sex, yet, when it is revealed that Elena is indeed a virgin, and expects Sergio to now wed her after their intimate encounter, Sergio moves into a panic, attempting to avoid any degree of commitment. It is, however, revealed that Elena, aside from still being a teenage, is also suffering from a high degree of mental illness, or at the very least a severe case of depression. These changes result in Elena's family stepping in to seek reprimands for Sergio's behavior, although the wealth and well-being of Sergio allow for him to escape without as much as a scratch, able to float about Cuba with his condescending gaze fixated on all those lesser than him. The film shows this rather simple narrative while continually intercutting between popular film and political footage, with a rather obvious yet incredibly poignant message along the way.
The notions of class and privilege cannot be ignored within Memories of Underdevelopment, and certainly should not, considering the political climate in Cuba at the time of the film's release. Firstly, Sergio is intended to be a loathsome character, his Westernized, views of the world allow him to look at his country with some degree of disgust, suggesting that the people are to some degree underprivileged and, therefore, decidedly less than he is, especially since he has seen the "better," and considerably whiter parts of the world. It is no irony that the people he seems to condemn the most are of considerably darker complexion than himself and as a result less connected with the Western ideal. This frame of reference helps explain how he goes about seducing and taking advantage of Elena, who is noticeably darker than himself, her suffering from a mental disorder, only helps to convince of his ability as the closest thing to a "white oppressor" to take advantage of the mentally troubled and, as a result, savage Cuban woman. It is a narrative that steeps itself within the realm of colonial criticism, which is no small irony, given that Cuba would be dealing with a colonial gaze via America, whose concerns for their production of weapons would lead to high levels of hostility, leading to surveillance and infamous photographs at the Bay of Pigs, completely unbeknownst to the people of Cuba. Much in the same way, Sergio lives in a high rise condo and uses the lens of an expensive camera to spy upon the people around his building, whose class and racial complexion are othered and exploited, even gazed upon at Sergio's leisure. It is, in fact, these sequences that seem to sum up the issues of the film beautifully. The film seems to ask what good can come from change and a desire to alter the landscape of a country that is being passed down and decided by a for so high up as to be literally detached from the ground. Their understanding of the problems does not speak to the deaths happening on the ground, only the lofty ambitions to be equal to the West, although this idea, as the narrative seems to hint, will never, and can never happen.
Key Scene: There is a nice repeat montage of some dancing and striptease scenes in the middle of the film that is experimentally sound and metaphorically powerful.
This is a doozy to come buy and does not appear to be receiving an American release in future, as such I strongly recommend watching it but will leave you to your own devices to figure out how to do so.